'Seeds are buried treasure,' says Simran Sethi, global speaker, educator and environmentalist. Ms Sethi talks about seeds with passion because, she says, humans have an interdependent relationship with them: 'seeds are life', she tells me; nature's most early beginnings, without which humans could not have thrived. And now they are under threat.
Simran knows her seeds. She tells me that humans once consumed a wide variety of grains, fruits and vegetables, but over time access to different crops has become limited, and sometimes even deliberately restricted. Since mainstream agriculture and large supermarkets choose to grow and sell only uniform, easy-to-grow varieties of fruits, vegetables and grains, biodiversity has suffered. Uniform crop varieties that are easy for large supermarket chains to grow and sell are bad for our diets and for biodiversity, and, Ms Sethi says, 'over time corporate insistence on growing only specific plant varieties has come to dominate farmer's choices and the crops they are able to grow, which means that precious older varieties of seeds have fallen out of the food chain completely.' This is the grain of truth from which seed activism has spawned, and in the wake of new seed patents that threaten seed heritage further people are realising that not only are we dependent on these tiny fertile harbingers of life, but we must fight to protect them.
According to Simran, in the U.S. increased public awareness of seed monopolies has been spurring the fight for seed freedom. For instance, a single corporation owns 60 per cent of the corn, soybean and cotton grown in the U.S, and only three corporations account for over half the global seed market, including GMOs that are patented and can't legally be saved or reused. This is why Ms Sethi states that seeds are in danger of becoming a 'non-renewable resource', and why activists like Simran are calling seed monopolies the battleground of our time.
The strongest faction of people who are working together to take the power back over seeds is through legislation for GMO foods, Simran explains: 'With more transparency over GMO products, people can choose to boycott the patented seeds, and support farmers who favour seed diversity instead.' There is a strong contingent of consumers in the U.S. who are in favour of GMO labelling, and a New York Times poll that found that 93 per cent of Americans support the mandatory labelling of GMO foods. Simran explains that the organic and locavore food movements have also played significant roles in alerting people to seed freedom, as 'people are beginning to see the damage caused by modern monocrop agricultural practices, and they are choosing to support farmer's markets and local, chemical-free crops instead'. This support has also led to a resurgence in some heirloom plants, with increasingly popular farmer's markets providing access to less common crops and plants that supermarkets generally refuse to stock.
A key figure in the food freedom movement, quantum theorist and activist Vandana Shiva is taking the fight for seed freedom to government level: last October Ms Shiva organised a global Seed Freedom Fortnight of Action to send a powerful message to the corporations that are patenting and controlling seeds, and the governments that are allowing them to do so. The seed freedom movement is empowering for individuals and communities worldwide: in the Indian Niyamgiri hills of Orissa, scientist and lecturer Debal Deb has created a farm using permaculture growing techniques to prove that nature has given us all we need to grow good crops and maintain natural biodiversity. Mr Deb wishes to establish evidence for this 'food web theory' and with the help of the local community he is building a seed bank in India's Odisha state. Using traditional growing methods, Mr Deb has so far helped to preserve and store 920 varieties of indigenous rice.
Ms Sethi says that 'Without fighting to conserve our seeds, we offer corporations control over what we eat. Without protecting seed biodiversity we lose our independence from large GM corporations, access to precious heirloom varieties', and also what Simran calls 'unique seed memories' - the stories of seeds, the tales of their origins, their interdependence with cultures that have shaped them and that they have helped to shape since the beginning of time. Ms Sethi says that when we lose seed and crop biodiversity, we lose our own stories and an important connection to the land around us, what we grow and what we eat.
I asked Simran, what is the most significant thing any individual can do in the fight for seed freedom? Her answer: as Wendell Berry said, 'eating is an agricultural act'. 'By changing the way we eat, we can change the way that crops are grown, ensure that different varieties of seeds are kept in circulation, and help to maintain agricultural biodiversity. In recent years heirloom varieties of some crops have been gaining steady popularity, such as some tomatoes and types of onions, but we still have a long way to go.' Not all of us can grow our own foods, save the seeds, share them with other growers, and grow heirloom varieties, but we all need to eat and we can make a significant, positive difference to seed security and food freedom by supporting local farmers who sell non-conventional produce at farmers' markets.
We can also start paying attention to individual seeds, because if we can learn their stories and histories, we can learn to connect to them in a vital way that is necessary to appreciate the value of these invisible bees. Seeds are humanity's beginning: they speak to us of our ancestors, of cultures from around the world, cultures we never knew, cultures that have long died out. A single seed represents nature at its most giving and most abundant. Simran says: 'If we want to create and sustain a culture of biodiversity and good health, we must remember that cultural changes come from diet changes.' In the last 100 years we have lost most of our precious seed varieties, but people are taking a stand to protect seed diversity and sowing the seeds of positive change for generations to come. And it's a fight that they are winning.